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Building a seedstock business from scratch

Anyone who raises cattle knows the work is never done, it just changes with the seasons. Raising breeding stock takes that commitment to another level with registrations, shows, and sale preparations often colliding with the start of a new calving season.

Despite all of the extras involved, Blair and Stephanie McIntosh knew from the get-go that they wanted to be in the seedstock business. The breed was a bit in question, though.

Stephanie’s parents have always had a commercial herd as part of their mixed farming operation near Maymont, Sask., and her experience in the show ring grew from her 4-H days and helping her grandparents, aunts and uncles show their Charolais cattle.

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Blair grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario and made his first trip west in 1999 to help some Angus breeders show at Agribition, where a chance meeting with Stephanie set the course for the future. Destiny may have been on their side, too, because she had enrolled to start classes at the University of Guelph in Ontario that fall.

After spending some time in Saskatchewan, it wasn’t long before six Simmental cows and a bull followed Blair when he made the permanent move west in 2003 to start their lives together and establish their own herd, McIntosh Livestock, on the farm at Maymont.

Stephanie recalls having saved enough to buy her first Simmental that year. Not knowing a whole lot about the breed’s bloodlines at the time, she went with her instincts and knowledge of phenotype to choose a heifer, IPU Pochahontas 139M, offered at the Labatte Simmentals bull sale. As it turned out, her decision that day influenced their new herd’s genetics in a big way because Pochahontas went on to have 48 calves to her credit thanks to very successful embryo flushing.

Extensive use of artificial insemination (AI) and embryo flushing, along with strict culling of cows not bred back within the April 1 to May 20 window, has underpinned their breeding program’s success and herd expansion. Nowadays, they will AI about 50 purebreds each year and transplant 30 to 40 embryos into their commercial cows.

That’s a lot of trips through the chute, made much more efficient with an upgrade to their handling system. They chose a model with headgate controls at the rear of the chute, which has proven to be convenient for the handler and improves cattle flow because people don’t have to be working in the animal’s flight zone as it approaches the headgate.

Blair says they were fairly picky as to what they wanted and took time to study all of their options because the handling system also had to be set up so, if need be, one person working alone could easily and safely move cattle through.

Oftentimes through the baby years and now the busy years with their boys, Seth, 11, and Carter, 8, there is only one person tending to the cattle. On pasture, too, they are set up with handling systems so that one person, one horse and one dog can gather or treat cattle.

The focus when deciding on improvements of any kind has always been on making the work safer and less labour intensive, he adds. They are happy with their choice of handling system on both accounts because it works very well for all jobs from AI work to clipping bulls to vaccinating and for the boys’ work with their 4-H animals.

photo: Debbie Furber

Two CowCams, one inside the calving barn and the other outside, have been another very worthwhile and time-saving investment for monitoring calving and for heat detection without interrupting the cows’ natural behaviours. The control box beside a television in the house lets them pan a full 360 degrees with both cameras to keep a hidden eye on cattle in the barn and adjoining corral.

Installing a camera system can be a do-it-yourself project if you have lots of patience, he says. The company that sells CowCams doesn’t offer installation and it did take a lot of calls to the support people to solve frequency issues between the transmitters in the cameras and the receiver in the house. Electronic devices in the house, yard, or even at a neighbour’s place can cause interference if they are operating on the same frequency as the camera transmitters. The trick is to hit on the right frequency and there have been times through the years when it has had to be adjusted because of new devices and installations nearby. Other than that, both of their CowCams have withstood the elements and test of time.

Most nights they never have to make the trip to the barn and if they do it’s most likely to be to pen a new pair if another cow is starting to calve or trying to steal the other cow’s newborn.

Within a day of calving, the new pairs are moved to the uninsulated barn for one or two nights, then out to the open area with large calf shelters and windbreak fences.

Having confirmed calving dates has made planning for calving season that much easier. Ultrasound testing in July to determine the success of the embryo transplants gives them time to put a bull with any open recipient cows for one cycle to be sold as bred cows to later-calving herds.

Ultrasounds also confirm whether the purebred cows were bred to the AI sire or on a later cycle to the cleanup bull, and identify cows carrying twins so that they can keep a close watch on them as their calving dates near.

Stephanie’s parents’ commercial cows start calving approximately six weeks after the purebred herd, which allows most of the AI and embryo transfer work to be completed before the bulk of the commercial babies start to arrive.

May 1 is branding, well ahead of the move to summer pasture later that month. Cows with purebred bull calves are sorted into one group and cows with top-end heifer calves are sorted into another group to go to separate pastures close to home where they are handy to show potential customers who drop by the farm. The rest of the cattle summer at a provincial community pasture.

Weaning starts in early- to mid-September with the purebred calves, when bull calves that don’t make the cut for their March bull sale go to market before the fall calf run picks up steam.

Halter breaking the purebred calves starts as soon as they calm down after weaning. They get their Bovishield Gold and Ultrabac7 booster shots at this time and a dose of intranasal vaccine against respiratory disease reinforces immunity before heading out to a show.

The actual showing is something of a reward in itself after all the preparations, halter breaking and working with the calves through the washing and grooming routine numerous times on the farm.

The commercial calves are weaned in mid-October when they come out of the community pasture. All of the heifers and steer calves are backgrounded through to February when the McIntoshes will make the final call on heifers for their breeding herd.

Building the business

While the breeding program revolves around raising sound working bulls for commercial herds, the McIntoshes agree that showing has played a big part in getting their name out there.

The show cattle have to be ready to hit the road by the first weekend of November for the Lloydminster Stockade Roundup Simmental show and all-breeds Fall Fusion female sale. Two weeks later, it’s off to Regina for Agribition, where they participate in the Simmental show and sale. On the commercial side, they have been consistent exhibitors in bull pen alley show and The Yards, where producers have the opportunity to showcase any or all parts of their programs. The Friday Night Lights select Simmental sale at Olds, Alta., in December was their first event outside of their home province.

They are pleased to have been able to offer two or three of their very top-end heifers for sale at these events for the past several years, but most of their top heifer calves have been retained through the years of building their own herd. Likewise, it takes time and commitment to develop a breeding program that produces quality bulls year after year and the McIntoshes are proud to now be able to offer approximately 20 red and black yearling bulls at their annual bull sales.

In 2006, they joined the long-running Kuntz Simmental Farm and Stoughton Farms sale held in the middle of March each year at the Lloydminster exhibition grounds. SAJ Simmentals has been the new breeder on the block for the past three years leading up to the Stoughton family’s dispersal last fall.

The Kuntz-McIntosh-SAJ catalogue published by sale manager, T Bar C Cattle Co. of Saskatoon, remains a cornerstone of the marketing program. They still mail out copies and the capacity of today’s internet has expanded their reach with the catalogue available online, live broadcasts of the sale by DLMS with online and phone-in bidding, and their own Facebook page.

They’ve considered setting up their own website, but Facebook has served their purposes well because it’s simple to post and update information, keep in touch with what’s going on, and they really appreciate the instant feedback from comments, likes, and tags.

Marketing is time and money well-spent when starting out in the seedstock sector, but the best part of all in their view is having the opportunity to show potential buyers around their farm because customers get to see the bulls with their dams and half-sib females right there as well.

Next best is having good photos of individual cows to post on Facebook and email to customers not able to make a trip to the farm. One of this past summer’s projects was to have a professional photographer out to capture shots of the cows in the pasture setting.

Their herd has grown to the point where they have a selection of bloodlines to be able to recommend bulls with specific traits of interest to customers, such as calving ease, growth and maternal. For the most part, though, they find that today’s commercial cow-calf producers value the same traits as they do — sound feet, leg and udder structure, great hair coat, fertility and easy-going disposition. Simply put, they want everything wrapped up in a balanced package.

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